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'This is the guy:' How analytics, intangibles sold the Detroit Lions on GM Brad Holmes

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ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Mike Disner was watching videos the National Football League puts together of potential candidates, generic questions trying to introduce different personnel people around the league to front offices making general manager hires.

He popped in another video. The man he was watching, Brad Holmes, immediately stood out. Holmes had not been on the Detroit Lions’ list of candidates at the time, but Holmes caught the eye of the Lions’ Vice President of Football Administration.

He went to team president Rod Wood. Had him watch the video, too. Together, they decided they needed to talk with Holmes, the Los Angeles Rams’ director of college scouting.

“Then, when we did, he just really, literally, blew us all away,” Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp said. “We had some terrific other people that we could have gotten and probably said they were very good.

“Brad just struck us as head-and-shoulders above.”

In meeting with candidates, Hamp and Wood acknowledged they did value experience in one or both of the head coaching and general manager positions. But Wood also said part of what they were trying to do is also project what these candidates might become once they had experience.

That, Wood said, is where Holmes was the candidate that stood out the most. Wood said within minutes of Holmes’ first interview -- he’s always been big on first impressions -- he wrote down a note of what his first thought was.

Wood’s message was simple.

“This is the guy,” Wood said.

By the end of the first interview, it felt less like a Zoom session and more like a conversation between potential future colleagues. Holmes didn’t know what to expect going into the interview. This was his first cycle of interviews -- and the only other team he met with was Atlanta. So he was still new at this.

Nerves were high at the start.

“The nerves quickly went away,” Holmes said. “It really was Mrs. Hamp. She had such an immediate, positive impact on me so early on that I got off that interview and I told my wife, ‘I wasn’t expecting that.’

“The reason why I say that is, it literally started off as a virtual Zoom process but by the end it felt like we were sitting by a fireplace or a campfire just getting to know each other. Sometimes you just get that feeling that when you know something is right, it just feels right. Well, Mrs. Hamp just had an incredible soul that I was able to connect with and just the whole process was A-1, first class, couldn’t be more excited.”

Holmes pitched himself. Pitched his vision and his plan. After each interview, Hamp, Wood, Disner and special assistant Chris Spielman graded each candidate on predetermined criteria: Culture building; being open, inclusive, supportive, engaging and an exceptional listener and communicator; being able to lead a diverse team, many of whom work on the road and outside of the building on a regular basis; someone with excellent self-awareness, acknowledging what they don’t know and building a team around them to cover their weaknesses; working with our head coach in a positive and productive relationship and most importantly the ability to balance the team needs of today and the team needs of the future.

Wood, Holmes said, “blew away the competition and stood out,” in those criteria. His ability to potentially take the Lions into the future when it comes to their now-shared vision for where they wanted the organization to head.

Holmes’ vision was, Hamp said, “everything we were looking for.” They liked how he communicated and his approach to building a team. They appreciated his approach to forward-thinking analytics and scouting.

That’s what they are expecting him to be able to do early to help reconfigure a Lions roster that finished in last place the last three seasons.

“The one thing that Brad brought from what the Rams do is the use of analytics to really hone in on the players that you can predict will fit your roster,” Wood said. “And make an impact on your team. Obviously there’s the scouting of the players, watching them in person and then watching them on tape.

“And then taking all this data that is out there and figuring out if somebody runs a 40 at X speed and has arm length of this and a 3-cone of that, they are likely to be a good player or they are likely not to be a good player and they’ve taken it to a whole new level.”

Wood said it was something the Lions had not heard before -- “cutting-edge,” -- and Hamp said “it is definitely different, pretty much, from what we’ve been doing here.”

Holmes said his approach won’t be complicated. It will be collaborative. He made sure to say “there will be no ego in this process. There will be no ego in the culture.” He said they will continue to evolve as the times go and that he’ll be utilizing technology as much as possible.

Holmes views tech “as an accelerator.”

“There’s so many different avenues and so many different areas in scouting and personnel where the use and acceleration of technology can be utilized in a very critical way,” Holmes said. “It can be even down to just making sure that everybody has connected that are even outside of the building that are on the road.

“Make sure that this technology is being utilized properly and efficiently and in the right way to make sure that’s all connected. It goes from the college side to the pro side, using analytics. The use of the evaluation process. How you communicate, that’s probably one of the biggest in the use of technology. But there’s a lot of different avenues.”

So one of his first tasks will be to modernize what the Lions are doing in scouting by basing much of it off of what Holmes used with the Rams under their general manager Les Snead. He plans to blend his staff with a mixture of pro and college experience.

Beyond the obvious -- finding good players who fit well together -- he’s also being brought in because of his focus on the intangibles. That means uncovering what isn’t necessarily seen from the raw talent but can be figured out through the numbers and technology Holmes favors using.

“Very important to me,” Holmes said. “I think the intangibles are the separators of success. And I think it’s very important from my background and my experience up to this point with the Rams, we always made an emphasis on investing in high-intangible football players.

“[Passion] is one intangible piece that I don’t have any room, don’t have any margin for error. Passion for football is extremely important. Probably the utmost importance when it comes to intangibles so that’s something that I actually explained to Rod and Sheila during the interview process. That’s something I won’t budge on, when it comes to passion for football.”

Holmes found it often with players on the Rams. Holmes has it in abundance in himself. And in part of bringing him to the Lions, it’s something the Lions ownership is hoping he’s able to identify and bring to Detroit as he tries to create the team’s first consistent winner in six decades.